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Paddling Along the Rivers of Mendocino County

I arrived in Mendocino an hour before sunset, the last light of day touching the faces of the picturesque Victorian homes and store fronts, spilling across the Mendocino Headlands to cast a contented glow on the faces of the dog walkers, joggers, and hand-holding lovers crunching along the winding paths.

I have made a life of watching the sun sink into the sea, and so, eventually, I followed a path to the edge of the cliffs. The sea blew ragged, but the mouth of the Big River was a deep blue calm.

Directly below me, five twenty-somethings stood on the dark rocks as the ocean sighed and moved just off their feet. The three men were fishing. The girls watched the sunset. None of them seemed the least bit concerned with the oncoming darkness. All wore thick flannels and wool caps in deference to the ever cooling wind.

A man stepped up beside me.

Eschewing a greeting, he grumbled, "Stupid kids. How are they going to find their way back in the dark?"

I try to give my fellow man the benefit of the doubt, but it is also true I have small tolerance for the grumpy and the judgmental. I had already seen the well-stocked contents of the red and white cooler tucked up against the cliff, and a full moon was already in the sky. It seemed to me a fine way to spend the night.

I smiled at the man.

"I wouldn't mind being down there with them," I said.

He grimaced at me as if he might give me a push so I could join them.

"Well then, you're out of your mind too," he said.

I nodded agreeably. It was a possibility.

"Maybe gravity got the best of them," I said.

"Huh?"

Mendocino is not without its New Agers, old hippies, and displaced Rastafarians. There is often a sweet smell in the air. It was not hard to see what my companion was thinking.

"I was walking the streets before I came down here," I said.

He harrumphed.

"You are crazy," he said, leaving before I had the chance to tell him what I had discovered.

As the light left the sky, I looked down a last time at the gathering below me. One of the fishermen had put down a pole and taken up a young girl's hand. Moonlight winked on the water.

How can you not like Mendocino, where all the streets tilt to the sea?

That night I ate Brazilian fish stew at the Mendocino Café, where they pride themselves on "serving international cuisine composed of organic ingredients healthy for the planet and our customers." Not that this distinguished the cafe from most of the other local businesses. The stew was piping hot and delicious, a coconut broth liberally endowed with rock shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari and fish. It made me think of my friends at the ocean's edge, and when I walked back out on to the headland after dinner, I didn't even need to walk to the cliff's edge. I could hear their laughter, coming up over the cliffs and running through the moonlight.

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Mendocino County has many offerings, including spectacular seascapes (Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands National Monument), fun for the family (ride the Skunk Train through the Noyo River Canyon) and an ever-burgeoning wine scene, known for its Alsatian varietals and sparkling wine producers in places like Eagle Peak and the Redwood, Potter, and Anderson Valleys.

But whatever you choose to do when you visit, you shouldn't neglect a leisurely stroll around Mendocino itself. Lovely and quirky, it is a fine place to amble. If ever flower gardens and white picket fences take over the world, the assault will begin here. And the offbeat and the independent are everywhere. Inside Corners of the Mouth (a natural foods store housed in an old Baptist church) you can pick through baskets of organic produce, receive a wellness consultation, or wander upstairs to the Herb Room, where, along with over 250 herbs and spices, you'll also find a herbal reference library so you'll know what it is you're buying. A sign on the wall says "Food For People. Not For Profit." Outside a jacked-up pickup pulled into the parking lot. A burly, lumberjack of a fellow clambered down, strode to the back, dropped the tailgate, hopped up, situated himself comfortably and began to play the flute beautifully. There are women with lots of hair and men with lots more hair. It is a place of literacy, free speech, and independence, evidenced by a sticker, affixed (independently) over a speed limit sign. "Read M-F..ing Books All Damn Day."

But mostly Mendocino is a place of natural beauty, which is why I signed on for a kayak trip on the Noyo River with Liquid Fusion Kayaking. Liquid Fusion is tucked at the edge of tiny Noyo Harbor, a working harbor with boats sun and salt blistered, and great blue herons riding their silhouettes across the still waters.

On the morning I arrived, the white board hanging outside Liquid Fusion's office listed mule deer (33), California sea lions (likely too numerous to count), green herons, Pacific loons, Western pond turtles and a red-shouldered hawk.

Owner Jeff Laxier peered over my shoulder.

"That was one day," he said. "And there are things missing."

I liked Jeff. He was funny and soft spoken, and he made no mention of his many certifications or skills, nor did he mention that he was a former member of the San Diego Mountain Rescue Team and the U.S. Marine Corps. I liked Cate Hawthorne, too. She brimmed with energy and she, too, possessed a quiet competence garnered in an arena every bit as forbidding as the U.S. Marine Corps -- public schools.

Mostly I liked them because they both loved what they were doing.

Jeff grinned.

"We go out and we play, and we bring people with us. If it ain't fun, we aren't going to do it."

As we paddled up the calm, sun-dappled river, Cate and Jeff took turns pointing things out. Here a kingfisher's nest in the river bank; there an osprey in the trees, an otter trotting across a gravel bar, and the shadowy outline of a harbor seal gliding right past my kayak, followed by her pup. At one point Cate raised her hand and we went silent. On the riverbank, a doe and her fawn stood pinioned in the sun. We watched them. They watched us. Then the fawn gave a little jump and they were both gone.

The whiteboard had undersold the river.

Nor was the Noyo my only magical brush with a river. Throughout Mendocino County, rivers run to the sea, and you should find your own place beside one. I did, pulling off to the side of the road somewhere in Navarro River Redwoods State Park. Following a path through the shadows of the forest, I stepped out onto a white bright sand bank. At midday the sand was frying pan hot, but the Navarro River offered handy remedy. As discreetly as possible I sprinted for the water, high stepping past yet another clot of twenty-somethings.

It is fine to turn slowly with the river's eddies while overhead swallows dart and fat white clouds drift lazily.

The river was cool, bordering on cold. When I got out, I was able to walk across the sand with something resembling dignity.

As I passed the twenty-somethings, one of them grinned and said, "Sand's pretty hot."

"You're not kidding," I said.

This time I did a mock dance, but they laughed just the same.

One of the boys cocked his head.

"Hey," he said. "Were you out on the headlands the other night?"

I knew them and I laughed.

"How was the fishing?" I asked.

"Caught a few rockfish. It was a good night."

I was twenty once.

I thought of the full moon.

"I bet it was," I said.

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